Doctor Who is by far my favorite TV show. However, with more than 800 episodes, it’s easy to get intimidated by its gigantic back catalogue. This short beginner’s guide is here to help aspiring Doctor Who fans to catch up with the show.

How Doctor Who works and a little bit of history

Doctor Who is a show about a madman in a box. The madman is the Doctor, an humanoid alien from the planet Gallifrey. The Doctor is a time lord, an alien capable of regenerating its body as a way to escape death. Each regeneration marks a change in the cast, with a new actor taking the role of the Doctor. The box is the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimensions in Space), the Doctor’s space-time ship, that is bigger on the inside and can go instantly to anywhere in the past, present or future of the Universe.

The Doctor travels the Universe in his TARDIS, usually accompanied by human friends that he meets in his adventures. Anytime the Doctor encounters evil and injustices, his moral compass leads him into saving the day.

The classic era of Doctor Who aired on the BBC for 26 seasons, starting in 1963. The classic era episodes are part of serials, which usually have between four and six episodes. Each serial is usually a standalone story. Therefore, you don’t have to watch the show from the beginning to understand it.

Sadly, the classic series of Doctor Who was canceled in 1989 and for fifteen years no new episode was aired. In 1996, a TV movie was produced by FOX with the intention to lead into a new TV show. But the idea was scraped following the disappointing reception of the movie.

However, in 2005 the BBC started to produce new series of Doctor Who. Each series has from ten to thirteen episodes. Until today, eleven new series were produced, with a twelfth series currently under production. There are also Christmas and New Year’s specials. Most episodes are standalone stories, with some stories in two parts. All the series have a recurring theme, villain or plot point. The specials are part of the chronology of the show and usually can’t be skipped.

Episodes recommendations and starting points

Even with its large lore, most of Doctor Who can be watched in isolation, rating very well as a standalone sci-fi story. So, before starting to watch Doctor Who, you can get a taste with these recommendations:

  • The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances (series 1, episodes 9 and 10)
  • The Girl in the Fireplace (series 2, episode 4)
  • Blink (series 3, episode 10)
  • The Eleventh Hour (series 5, episode 1)
  • A Christmas Carol (2010 Christmas special)
  • Vincent and the Doctor (series 5, episode 10)
  • Hide (series 7, episode 9)
  • Nightmare in Silver (series 7, episode 12)
  • Robot of Sherwood (series 9, episode 3)

These are not necessarily the best episodes, but they make a good job as a sample that can be watched without any background material. You don’t have to watch all of my recommendations. Watch long enough to convince yourself to start following the show. I didn’t provided summaries because I don’t want to spoil anything. If you want to know more about the episodes, check Wikipedia.

It’s worth reiterating that the Doctor changes its appearance. So, if you watch all of my recommended episodes, you will see many different incarnations of the Doctor traveling with many different characters. This kind of change is a fundamental dynamic of the show and getting used to it is essential to appreciate it.

Once you are convinced you want to follow Doctor Who, there are three canonical starting points:

  • Rose (series 1, episode 1): the beginning of the new series. Start here if you don’t want to loose anything. The downside is that you will need a lot of time to catch up. (And many of the early special effects haven’t aged very well.)
  • The Eleventh Hour (series 5, episode 1): a soft reboot following a change in the creative leadership of the show. Start here to jump directly to some of the golden years of the new series and catch up more quickly. The downside it that you will not follow all the references. However, the major plot points should be understandable enough.
  • The Woman Who Fell to Earth (series 11, episode 1): another soft reboot following another change in the creative leadership of the show. Starting here allows you to catch up quickly and understand pretty much everything presented.

Note that all my recommendations are from the new series. The classic series has many gems and watching it is totally worth it, but it is usually recommended saving it for after you’ve catch up with the new series. Besides, 97 of the classic episodes are missing from the BBC archives, with only the audio track remaining.

If you really want to start from the classic series, the best entry points are:

  • An Unearthly Child (season 1, episode 1): the absolute beginning, the first Doctor Who episode ever made, still in black and white. If you start here, be prepared to watch a lot of boring reconstructions of missing episodes.1 Besides, the pacing back then was really different from modern television.
  • Spearhead from Space (season 7, episode 1): first colored episode. Many new concepts introduced, making a great starting point. Much closer in pacing to modern episodes, but with some very dated special effects.

My personal recommendation is to start from Rose, specially if you’re already interested in the show and willing to invest the time.

In the end of the day, you can always ignore my recommendations and start Doctor Who from wherever you want. The important thing is to watch Doctor Who.

  1. Fortunately, there is a growing collection of animated versions of missing episodes.